Imagine a beat-up Model T Roadster driving down Centre Street and pulling up near an alley. A man lugs his camera and tripod across the street to photograph the familiar bright red-and-white advertising sign reading: “Relieves fatigue! 5¢ Delicious and Refreshing! Sold Everywhere. Drink Coca-Cola.”

Two young pranksters are mugging for the camera and he tries to run them off, but they won’t budge. He takes the shot anyway, and wearily loads up his camera. He might head over to the local drug store soda fountain for a Coke and a ham sandwich before heading out of town, scanning his assignment list for other painted signs as he goes.

America’s Business Archives and American History

America’s business archives usually operate behind-the-scenes, and perform vital functions on many levels – from preserving corporate memory and heritage to retaining the company’s records for continuity in the event of a disaster.

Though the archives can serve the company itself in many ways, America’s business archives also hold collections that are historically significant on a national level. They reflect the important role that American companies have played in America’s history.

The Coca-Cola Archives in Atlanta houses a vast collection of memorabilia, from vintage Coke machines to murals,lunchboxes to paper ephemera. Coca-Cola Journey offers stories about the history of the company and their articles actively support the preservation of America’s historical collections as a whole.   

Each page displays several snapshots which often capture people in mid-stride, going about their daily lives, as in this photograph of 78 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

The Coke Archives recently sent a 1913-14 photograph album to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) for conservation treatment and digitization. The Archives staff is still researching the history of the album, which is comprised of more than 1,750 photographs, adhered to 281 pages. The album cover is marked “R.C Maxwell and Co.,” a New Jersey company that specialized in outdoor signs from 1894 to 2000. The company routinely photographed its advertising signs, but this album is a very early example. Each page displays several snapshots and handwritten captions which indicate the locations of the signs, and they often capture people in mid-stride, going about their daily lives, as in this photograph of 78 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Increased Access

The photograph album has been a highly requested resource at the Coca-Cola Archives – and its deteriorating condition has made it extremely fragile to handle.


The goal of the conservation treatment and digital imaging project was to provide easier access to the images for researchers. The photograph album has been a highly requested resource at the Coca-Cola Archives – and its deteriorating condition has made it extremely fragile to handle.

“We were afraid to turn the pages,” said Ginny Van Winkle, cataloging archivist at Coca-Cola. “Pieces of the brittle pages would crumble off every time we touched it.”

The volume contains a handwritten index by town, which helped in finding a particular photograph, but because the volume is so large, accessing the pages was very awkward.

The original binding was broken and the support pages were extremely brittle.

The original binding was broken. The pages had become loose and many were cockled and discolored. The condition of the pages created an unstable support for the photographs, which are adhered overall to the pages, possibly with a water-based adhesive.

Treatment Procedures

NEDCC’s conservation treatment included collating and checking the pages for completeness; disbinding the volume; and surface cleaning the individual photographs and the support pages. Mending of pages using a lightweight (Usumino thin) Japanese paper and dry wheat starch paste was minimal, and only necessary for stabilization and safe handling during imaging.

"Because each page contains captions that were handwritten in water-soluble ink," explains NEDCC Senior Photograph Conservator Monique Fischer. "Removal of the photographs from the leaves was not recommended. It was crucial to preserve the location information with the images. Each support leaf with attached photographs was placed in a MicroChamber ©/ SilverSafe folder, and housed in archival drop-front boxes."

Dry cleaning the support pages with a rubber eraser.

Surface cleaning the photographs with cotton swabs using filtered water and ethanol.

Support leaves were places in individual folders.

These folders are specifically designed for photographic materials. The exterior is lignin- and sulfur-free, with alkaline buffering and pH of 8.5. The inner surface is a neutral pH non-buffered white cotton paper. The folders provide protection against oxidative and acid gaseous pollutants.

Album

A custom CMI box was created for the original binding, which will be stored with the boxes of photo album leaves. The CMI box protects the binding from handling, pollutants, light, and rapid changes in temperature and relative humidity.

Digitization for Access

After treatment, the volume was digitized in the Center’s Digital Imaging Studio. Individudal pages were now stored in separate folders and able to be more safely handled during imaging. Each page was imaged in its entirety using an 80 megapixel medium format digital camera, allowing the relatively large album leaves to be captured at 400 ppi.

"For this project," says Terrance D'Ambrosio, director of imaging services at NEDCC, "the imaging staff cropped each image to preserve a narrow border around the edge of the album leaf, but with the high-resolution images, the Archives staff will be able to crop to the individual photographs and their captions at a later date." Digitization will make these images easily accessible while preserving the fragile originals.

Historical Gold Mine

The information contained in this unique photograph album can inform a wide range of interests. Historic preservation researchers can use the photographs to locate buildings and intersections and examine facades and structures in detail. Of course, those interested in Ghost Advertising will find a treasure trove of resources here. Many of the Coca-Cola signs are now being restored to their original grandeur by towns and cities across the country, so the detail shown in the photographs can help shape a sign restoration project. 

The manager or proprietor was often named on the signs, providing valuable information for genealogical research and town history. This shot was taken in Richmond, Virginia.

The mysterious R.C. Maxwell staff photographer may have even captured his own shadow in some of the images. (Camden, South Carolina)

Juxtaposition of motorcars and horse-drawn carriages appears throughout the album, as in this image from Columbia, South Carolina.

Evolving American history is also captured loud and clear in this startling shot from Atlantic City, New Jersey. The sign appears to have originally read: "Women do not want the vote. New Jersey Association Opposed to Women Suffrage."

Each photograph in this rare album contains a wealth of information and the research possibilities are endless. Here is just one example of a Then-and-Now photograph, showing the original sign and its current view at 194 Winter Street in Haverhill, Massachusetts. 
“Now” photograph by David Joyall, NEDCC Senior Photographer.

Learn more about the work of America's Business Archivists at Society of American Archivists Business Archives Section.

Julie Martin is marketing and public relations manager for the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), based in Andover, Mass. Founded in 1973, the NEDCC is the first nonprofit conservation center in the U.S. to specialize in the preservation of paper-based materials for museums, libraries, archives and other cultural organizations, as well as private collections. NEDCC serves clients nationwide, providing book, paper, and photograph conservation treatment, digital imaging, audio preservation, assessments, consultations, training programs, and disaster assistance.